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Co-Investigator of CAPE & Director of Research Strategy & Policy at UCL
At the recent HEPI / Taylor and Francis roundtable dinner on open access and evidence-informed policymaking, there was much constructive and energised discussion about how to ensure closer interactions between research and public policy. As someone who has spent more than a decade working to strengthen engagement between research and public policy, I come at this from within the ‘third space’ Matt Flinders identified in his recent HEPI blog.
Reflecting on the implications of open access research for increasing evidence-informed policymaking, it does seem important to recognise the great progress that has been made in opening up research to much larger audiences, including policy audiences. UCL has certainly seen access to and use of our research outputs significantly increase as a result. UCL Press – the first fully open-access university press in UK – has seen six million downloads of its monographs since it was launched in 2015, a number far outweighing what would be expected in terms of hard-copy sales, while citations of UCL research outputs have increased as more of them have become open access. Thus, open access starts to address the commonly expressed problem among policy communities: that they are unable to access academic research papers behind journal paywalls.
However, it is also the case that open access does not automatically make research accessible. If policymakers (and other users) are unable to find relevant research, or to understand highly technical outputs, they cannot make use of the evidence being published. So how to ensure that policy communities can benefit from the increasing volume of research in order to deliver evidence-informed policy? Part of this has to be about recognising the risk, as Tracey Brown of Sense About Science noted at the recent roundtable, of being ‘overwhelmed by stuff’. New platforms, such as Policy Commons and Overton, are starting to curate different forms of policy-focused research outputs and academic citations in policy publications. Innovations introduced by publishers, such as Taylor & Francis’s plain English summaries, to make it easier to understand what a research paper is about, are a great start.
But online platforms and systems can only go so far. I would like to offer a framework of ‘Five Cs’ which I think provide important elements of building closer relationships between research and public policy.
Firstly, capabilities – important both for researchers and academics in understanding how to communicate and how to access and understand research. We might refer to some of these as ‘translational capabilities’: for example, how to make academic research comprehensible to someone without highly specialist knowledge, or how to articulate policy problems in a way that can take account of academic expertise. It would also include curational capabilities: how to make research outputs easy to navigate for policy (and, indeed, other) users. And relational capabilities are critical, with evidence from academic literature and practice on the importance of relationships in supporting research use. Such capabilities shouldn’t be taken for granted but may require supporting people to build new skills or recruiting specialist roles such as knowledge brokers.
Relational capabilities underpin my second point, connections. Ultimately, successful academic-policy engagement and evidence use seems to depend on building connections between people. Certainly, the experience of the Capabilities in Academic Policy (CAPE) project, which I lead, has been that relationships are often what build the mutual knowledge and understanding that enables engagement and drives research use. Put another way, it is often a question of the right people being in the right place at the right time. Given this, we need to invest in building sustainable connections over the long-term, which can create the conditions both for reciprocal relationships to build trust and to enable the serendipitous moments that result in research informing policy.
Such connections also enable better coordination of research efforts. This might be of groups of researchers – for example, to contribute to a policy dialogue event or an advisory committee – or of research outputs. Here, I’m thinking of how outputs might be curated thematically, but also of research synthesis and literature reviews. The value of this is repeatedly emphasised by policy users as offering robust, (relatively) accessible and useful summations of relevant evidence. Yet research synthesis remains frequently under-valued in academic prestige terms, including (at least this is the perception) by research funders and publishers. A key question, then, is how to encourage research synthesis as part of the body of academic research outputs – and perhaps how to undertake synthesis in a timely way to address public policy questions. The new Parliamentary thematic research leads and hubs look set to provide an opportunity to draw insight and evidence from across disciplines to inform key policy topics discussed in Parliament.
Cross-disciplinary approaches to tackling policy problems are increasingly important. The COVID-19 pandemic illustrated this vividly – requiring public health expertise, social and behavioural scientists, data modellers, economists and many others to inform the policy response, and showing some of the practical difficulties in balancing different forms of evidence as well as other concerns. So, fourthly, I emphasise collaboration – not only between disciplines but also between organisations. ESRC’s recent collaboration with Government departments to host academic Policy Fellowships, with policy challenge areas open to a broad range of social science and humanities disciplines, are a good example of how institutional collaboration in turn supports it at the level of individuals. The creation of UPEN (the Universities Policy Engagement Network) has shown the power of universities working together to engage with policy communities – making it much easier for policy professionals to access academic expertise without having to navigate multiple institutions. Supporting sustained collaboration between academic, policy and other communities is essential to drive evidence use.
This leads me to my final point: co-production. I think it is vital that we foster co-production between academic and policy communities. But I do sometimes wonder whether rhetoric has leapt ahead of practice in the research-policy nexus, where we are still learning how to do this effectively and how to navigate some of the inevitable difficult questions that emerge. I suspect there is much to learn from other engagement practices. We should be thinking not only of bilateral coproduction, but also of how to take a ‘quadruple helix’ approach to co-production, which involves not only academics and policymakers, but also businesses and civil society. This is crucial to understanding what counts as evidence, and how it could and should be used.
I acknowledge that this is not as simple as ‘ABC’ or even ‘the 5 Cs’. But, taken together, I think these elements can provide some of the answers to strengthening evidence use in an increasingly complex ecosystem, and to ensuring that the research base is effectively contributing to better public policy.
HEPI and Taylor & Francis recently hosted a roundtable dinner on open access publishing and policymaking. This is the latest blog is a series:
- Read ‘Open Access 101’ by Dr Fiona Counsell, Head of Open Access Operations & Policy at Taylor & Francis, here.
- Read ‘Open Access: The end or the means’ by Victoria Gardner, Director of Policy at Taylor & Francis, here.
- Read ‘The Open Access Opportunity: Building the Third Space’, by Matt Flinders, Professor of Politics at the University of Sheffield here.